I met Antonella and Vincenzo on their wedding day, 18th July 2019 – Antonella with huge eyes that seemed to grasp all the light and life around her, Vincenzo with eyes only for her. These two young Italo-Albanians from Vaccarizzo Albanese, a small town in Calabria, have both worked at a Law Firm in Milan for a couple of years now. But they have returned to Vaccarizzo to be married.
Calabria and its languages
It is an old and painful tradition for southern Italians to leave their homes in search of work in the Italian north, with Milan being one of the most attractive centers. For about 200 years now, the exodus of the young adults of the south has slowly and incessantly depopulated Calabria, leaving empty villages or paesini fantasma. This exodus has not slowed down in the 21st century. In the last 15 years, 2.5 million Italians have left their homes in the south for opportunities in northern Italian cities: 50% comprising youth, and 30% with university diplomas. The southern region of Calabria, with its beautiful Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts, is the region with the lowest per capita income and the highest unemployment in Italy. Antonella and Vincenzo belong to this most recent wave of educated, idealistic youth who cannot find work in the region they grew up.
I had come to Calabria for field work. Calabria is poor economically, but it is still linguistically rich, and not only with languages: various Italian subdialects are still used by most Calabresi inhabitants and there are over 30 small communities that speak Arbëresh, as well as a few villages in the toe of the peninsula that speak Greko (in Bovesia and Reggio Calabria). Arbëresh is a variety of Albanian, brought to Calabria in the late 1400s by refugees from Albania and Greece fleeing the Ottoman invasion. Griko (in Salento-Puglia) and and Greko (in Calabria) are varieties of Greek brought to Calabria for the same reason. All are recognized as minority languages by Italian law no. 482, while the Italian dialectal varieties of the region are not. Arbëresh is categorized as definitely endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages. Griko and Greko are in a more advanced state of endangerment than Arbëresh and are very rarely used now in Calabria. The following map from the University of Calabria shows the 50 Arbëresh centers of Italy today. Vaccarizzo is number 22 in the enlarged square of the Calabrian area.
According to linguistic research, the number of speakers is an important factor for linguistic maintenance, a factor that is lacking in the small community of Vaccarizzo Albanese, and seriously threatens the use of Arbëresh there. The number of inhabitants has dwindled to somewhere between one and two thousand. The main Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) priest of the village, Papa Lia, who is also going to marry Antonella and Vincenzo, complains that there are no new births in Vaccarizzo. Recently there were only one or two newborns in the whole year – “how can one maintain the language when there are no young people to learn and use it?” he asks. Fortunately, Vaccarizzo is close to some other Arbëresh centers of a similar or even smaller size, like San Cosmo Albanese, San Giorgio Albanese, San Demetrio, and Macchia Albanese. The close relation of the first three centers has been attested from a long time (see Tocci 1865). Their good fortune consists not in exemplifying the belief that ‘misery loves company’, but in the possibility of creating a viable net of communication, a continuous coming and going that reduces the linguistic and cultural isolation of the Arbëresh people.
As endangerment shrinks the language and reduces the number of the active speakers, the sense of larger community becomes vital. It motivates these villages to create local and long-lasting synergies, share and celebrate Arbëresh-ness throughout different locations, and use the available financial resources in a more efficient way. Another problem faced by the Arbëresh of Vaccarizzo today is the decreasing number of speakers inside the village who use Arbëresh in at least one domain. Newcomers, especially those young in age, are the best thing that happens to small centers, but in Vaccarizzo the newcomers usually do not speak Arbëresh.
It is not surprising that Antonella and Vincenzo are having their wedding in Vaccarizzo and not in Milan. For them, Vacarizzo is still a magnetically attractive place, it is the warm fireplace to which they always return for at least a while. And this is not simply because in the last decades it has become a town with a picturesque piazza and charming narrow streets paved in stone.
Both Antonella and Vincenzo consider themselves to be from Vaccarizzo, while living and working in Milan. The truth however is much more complicated than this. They identify as children of Vaccarizzo and they speak Arbëresh (although with different levels of competence), but they were not born there. Antonella was born in Saronno of Lombardy in the North, the town of the famous amaretti di Saronno biscuits, and Vincenzo was born even further North, in Switzerland. The reason for their Northern birthplaces is the usual condizione calabrese: the parents of both the bride and the groom had to migrate to Northern Italy for work, lived there for many years, and brought their children back to Vaccarizzo when they could in the summers, to stay with their grandparents and spend their holidays in the sun of the South, and even for some school years. The fact is that Antonella, although having spent most of her life away from Vaccarizzo, still speaks Arbëresh well enough for her communicative needs at home, and Vincenzo has a passive understanding of the language. The connection to their family roots and the paesino Arbëresh is also how Vaccarizzo ‘kept’ Antonella and Vincenzo together, whether physically present in the village or far away from it.
After a long period in the North, Antonella decided to leave Milan and come back to Calabria to study at the University of Calabria, where she made Arbëresh a central part of her dissertation research. Vincenzo, on the other hand, after having stayed for some years in Vaccarizzo, decided to go and attend university in Milan. With whom? With Antonella’s brother, Francesco, who at that point had been his best friend for a while. Francesco’s life is a roller-coaster between the Italian North and South and then the United States, but let’s focus on our two main characters. Because of him, Antonella’s and Vincenzo’s paths crossed again. Once they finished at university, they found themselves again in Calabria where they really wanted to live and work. They both were very active in the Arbëresh movement in Vaccarizzo and the small towns around, participated in organized groups that performed Arbëresh songs and dances, took courses in Arbëresh offered by the Town Hall, and traveled to participate in competitions centered around Arbëresh. Antonella proudly showed me the beautiful Arbëresh traditional dresses in the Museum of Arberesh costumes and jewelry in Vaccarizzo, and explained that it was due to the insistence and the protests of her and a group of young people from Vaccarizzo that the Museum became permanent. I saw pictures of her and Vincenzo in the amazing costumes. One of them is now a postcard.
Their love grew and the way they understood each other matured as they worked to revive their little town and their shrinking language and traditions. But, alas! Calabria was unable to sustain these two young people’s ambitions, like so many before them, and like their parents who spent most of their lives working in other places. But always thought of Vaccarizzo as home. The two lovers gave Vaccarizzo more than one try, but at last decided to move to the North, taking with them the mementos and memories of their home, and the language of their mothers and grandmothers. Two years passed in Milan, a city that gave them good jobs, economic dignity, and freedom. At age 31 and 37 respectively, Antonella and Vincenzo decided to get married. They could think of only one place for their wedding: Vaccarizzo.
The Wedding, Peppa Marriti and Kuljaçi i Nuses
The wedding of Antonella and Vincenzo was spectacular, warm, and different. I will not forget it, firstly because of the pure immense love of two beautiful young people and of many devoted family members and friends who made every moment bliss and passion. But I will also remember it because of the beautiful location and special food served at the wedding, the beautifully simple ceremony in the small church of Vaccarizzo among the golden colors of the Orthodox Saints, the strong smell of incense, and the Byzantine monotone chanting of Papa Lia holding the white crowns made of orange flowers for the newlyweds. Then there was the stray dog full of pulci ‘flees’, who lives in the main piazza of the Katund, and who uses every church ceremony to centrally pose next to the Alpha person of the day. And the fuming Papa Lia running after him to throw him out of the church while the young would complain: But why? Why?
The most important factor that made this wedding special is what it gave to its guests. It was carefully built to bring joy from the music, talks, food, dances, and especially the Arbëresh language and tradition. A nice bottle of grappa, the distilled drink from grapes that is typical of Albanian tradition (raki in Albanian), is the gift given to all the wedding guests to take home. An extraordinary local band was the musical soul of the wedding, although there were many very good musical bands invited. I had heard of Peppa Marriti and their work of bringing together Arbëresh music and rhythm with rock and blues in a ‘fusion’ mode. The surprising thing for me was the clarity of the Arbëresh and Albanian lyrics, and the creative mixtures of language varieties and geographies. Angelo, also called Bobbo, the main singer and the director of the band, was able to combine not only Arbëresh, but also the Albanian varieties of North and South and even Kosovar songs and melodies, in a way that made the 200 guests at the wedding sing and dance with him. Bobbo keeps the Albanian flag with him at his concerts, but what in Bobbo is Albanian? It is only the memory of the ‘blood’ which more realistically is mainly language. He keeps it alive in events like this wedding. The band danced and sang in Arbëresh together with all of us for hours. You would hear the language revitalized right then and there among people who probably didn’t even use it any more at their homes. It was like living a linguistic revival moment in a laboratory, after an experiment that involved love, music and energy. But I knew that it was not a laboratory, although the sound of Arbëresh, the raki,and the music had brought me to a state of pure joy. I could be anywhere at that point, and as long as it was in Arbëresh it would be the place to be for me.
And then came a special event in the wedding, namely kuljaçi i nuses. The Arbëresh tradition of Vaccarizzo demands that at some point during the wedding, nusja ‘bride’ and dhandrri ‘groom’ pull from opposite sides of a very large dessert made of flour and honey, shaped like a giant pretzel. I would say it demonstrates a feminist tendency of these villages, given that the result is that whoever is left with the larger piece of the kuljaç commands at home, and the tradition is that the bride always wins! In Vaccarizzo all men are taught to always pull sharply to get a small piece, while all nuses, the brides, are taught to not pull at all, but simply pretend to pull. That means that the larger piece of the dessert will always be left to the women. It was sweet to see Antonella and Vincenzo that night perfectly playing this ritual like two great actors, her asking her mother and aunts, all worried and in panic, what to exactly do at that moment, all of course in Arbëresh, while her nephews would cheer for her in Italian: Dai zia! Vai zia!. And the story ended up as expected, with the nuse being the one that commands at home.
I interviewed Lucia, Antonella’s mother, a middle school teacher all her life who is now retired, but is remembered in all the communities where she taught for her love of their language and traditions, and her energy in supporting and mobilizing youth, working with the children to teach them how to recite, sing and dance Arbëresh. She tells me that her parents, mëma and tata, spoke an Arbëresh much richer and more fluent than Italian. She and her sisters had a hard time with Italian in the elementary school, where they were not allowed to use Arbëresh. But Lucia today, with some embarrassment, resorts to Italian when Arbëresh does not allow her to fully express herself. Warm, cordial and smart, Lucia explained to me that traditionally the wedding dessert was not even called kuljaç, and she does not even remember when it started to be so named. It was part of the Arbëresh tradition of Vaccarizzo, she says, but we used to call it mustacioli i nuses, evidently an Italian word which is thought to have Latin origins. But Lucia explains that calling it kuljaç now with an Arbëresh word with a similar meaning, has become a tradition, as has performing this beautiful ritual of kuljaçi i nuses at weddings in many Arbëresh villages of Calabria.
Commodification of tradition and culture are often criticized from within communities and from purist positions in academia. But who can tell us today that tradition does not always start as a new invention, which we get used to just because we happen to live long enough with it, as with the language in which the invention is embedded? How are the beautiful dresses of Arbëresh women created all around the Arbëresh villages of Italy? How are the special foods ‘different from the surrounding areas’ born? Certainly they were not brought from Albania 500 years ago or more! Why and when does the invention of difference (which I think is what has kept a distinct identity and sense of belonging of these communities alive for so long) stop being the crib of tradition and turn into the coffin of commodified touristy culture? What I am expressing is not optimism: it is a need to cope with endangerment. It is hope based mainly on the linguistic attitudes of speakers like those of Vaccarizzo. Language revival is extremely hard, but not impossible. But the demographics and other cultural and economic traits of Vaccarizzo rather support skeptics who fear that the functions left from endangered linguistic varieties in their last ‘good days’, after decades of stigma and repression, are more museum ornaments than real linguistic functions. As Coluzzi (2009) says: “once it has lost its social stigma, the dialect – what little of the dialect that is still known – becomes a supplementary communicational resource, in ordinary communication, available for use in particular contexts and functions – a little bit like English, that here and there comes in handy for inserts, quotations, advertisement, irony, showing off, ‘we code’, etc.”
Epilogue of a wedding
The beautiful wedding ended. The two newlyweds got ready to go back to the Italian North. The work at their new home was waiting. Will they ever return to Calabria for good? Will their children ever speak Arbëresh? Will Vaccarizzo be empty one day, and northern Italian communities become large pockets of minorities within minorities within minorities containing somewhere also the pale figure of whatever is left from Vaccarizzo? I do not have the answers, but I do not want Vaccarizzo of the future to be a place that could exemplify Foucauldian heterotopia. I look with great respect at these people who fight for their language as for themselves in the best and worst of their days. I cannot wait to see them in another summer. At another wedding perhaps. On a return to Vaccarizzo of the Arbëresh.
Coluzzi, P. 2009. Endangered minority and regional languages (‘dialects’) in Italy. Modern Italy, 14(1), 39-54.
Tocci, G. 1865. Memoria pei comuni albanesi di S. Giorgio, Vaccarizzo, S. Cosmo nella Causa dello scioglimento di promiscuita contro il comune di Acri innanzi all’ill. Cosenza. Tipografia Bruzia.